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Learning from street hustles

Last week I discussed the Netflix series Street Food Asia. The foodie in me loved looking at the origins and excellence of various dishes: chaat in India; tom yum in Thailand; jajan pasar in Indonesia; putu piring in Singapore. But the student of human endeavour in me was even more impressed. Street food, you see, is only ostensibly about food. It is actually about work, livelihoods, families, adversity, and progression.

When we think about street food today, we tend to think downmarket: cheap, basic, probably unhygienic food. Hustlers feeding other hustlers. But wait, what is the origin of any restaurant, even the world’s poshest? All eateries in history began on the street, in early urban settings. Wherever humans begin to live in numbers, some could not cook for themselves, and others stepped up to provide the service. The origins of what we now call restaurants can be found in all early civilisations as basic street stalls, from the Greeks to the Indians, the Egyptians to the Chinese.

It usually begins with someone, somewhere, who knows how to cook well. They care about taste, they give attention to the craft of cooking, they tweak and innovate. A dish emerges from a particular person in a particular home that becomes very popular amongst family and friends. Perhaps circumstances drive our home chef outwards to seek income—to put food on the table, to clothe and educate kids, to survive the stresses of this life.

Modestly and humbly, the street food stall is born, with little capital but much hope. Many such mushroom quickly, especially in urban areas with many single labourers, students, or merchant travellers. Before you know it, we have an urban food market in play.

We have these all over Africa, and they are very important for urban economies. Many a time I have walked up and down certain locales to see what makes their economies tick. What is the need being met (or staying unmet); what are the locals able to supply? What injects income into this economy? Try it on any urban or even semi-urban street, and you will see how important the local food economy is—buyers and sellers abound.

This is an excellent thing to see. Local eateries specialise in local dishes, springing authentically out of local culture. Local diners get to eat the food they have grown up with; the food that is aligned with their climate and their habitat. 

Money changes hands; bills get paid; children get to go to school; families gain some financial security. But that’s not all that’s going on in this economy. There is something far more remarkable happening, and that is about the work ethos being demonstrated and role-modelled. Observe any food stall owner (on TV or in real life) and you cannot fail to notice how hard they work. They start early and sleep late, pretty much every day. They do most things entirely by themselves. They slog and they strive, they do the daily grind repeatedly until they drop.

The best of them, the ones who get showcased on Netflix— which has added more street food series. They—and many who don’t get those accolades—are outstanding indeed. They combine hard work with unrelenting personal standards. They become artisans and craftspeople par excellence. They (eventually) enjoy long queues for their food, and—very rarely—some external praise. Some go on to become restaurateurs, not just stall-holders. Sometimes, global dishes emerge from these humble beginnings. Or where do you think biryanis and burritos, pizzas and pastas, jollofs and injeras came from? From the home to the global chain, via the street stall.

This natural engine in the economy, of its people feeding one another with the food that has emerged naturally from their history and habitat, is one we should admire and support. It enriches us to have so much variety in the human experience. It provides a path to uplift from poverty. It is a testing-ground for personal grit and excellence.

Economies are built on the backs of honest and simple endeavour. We need to give a lot more recognition and appreciation to our honest hustlers wherever we find them. They give our economy its spine. We spend too much time giving skyscrapers and expressways and banquets to the rich, when the real endeavour goes unrecognised and even gets oppressed. 

The rentier class flourishes because of the real work of real people, but it is only the fancy attire of the economy. It is neither the engine nor the essence. Those who live off capital or inherited wealth or simply moving money around are riding on a wave created elsewhere. The real economics is rarely taught in any classroom, but it is visible on every street: ordinary people working hard to uplift themselves through honest endeavour. There is nothing to look down upon there, and everything to look up to. Buy from these people; support them; applaud them; admire them; show them to your children as role models.

(Sunday 2 April, 2023)

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